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  • Amber Fisher

The Never Ending Story of Photo Manipulation


Woman retouching from The Book of Photography; Practical, Theoretical and Applied via Archive.org, within the public domain.


When we look at influencers’ photos on Instagram or wherever you choose to do your scrolling (we don’t judge here), we are pretty accustomed to the idea that the image may have been altered. A little photoshop here, a little filter there, we have all seen it, and we have probably all done it. Heck, I have made my arms thinner in photos just because I can and for no other particular reason. Also, if you didn’t spend 2015 posting photos of yourself with Snapchat filters, where were you? I digress.


A woman who's skin has been smoothed and who's neck and shoulders have been slightly reshaped, from The Book of Photography; Practical, Theoretical and Applied via Archive.org, within the public domain.


Photo editing is a staple of our existence on social media, and before that, a must-have in magazine shoots and fashion photography. However, our lord and saviour photoshop was only created in 1990. So photos before that were all genuine, right? Wrong. In fact, the earliest form of photo manipulation can actually be seen in 1846, when Calvert Richard Jones painted out a fifth monk on the negative of an image using Indian ink, leaving four behind. By 1878, the wet plate collodion process, which allowed photographers to combine multiple images on one negative, and the gelatin-silver (dry) photo processes were invented, becoming the first widely used photo manipulation methods. This led to a craze for negative retouching in both Europe and the United States, with customers insisting their portraits be retouched.


Woman retouching from The Book of Photography; Practical, Theoretical and Applied via Archive.org, within the public domain.


Retouching was, however, a painfully long and delicate process, taking hours to perform. Retouchers used pencils, scalpels and paintbrushes to lighten, darken or remove certain features of an image to make it more desirable for the client. This means that blemishes could be removed, the waist cinched in, and the skin smoothed to perfection in images that you would never suspect, simply because modern photo editing has only been around for 30 years. Changing one’s image to better fit society's norms has been going on since the mid-1800’s.


All this is to say, the Victorians did not have perfect glowing skin or an 18-inch waist. Neither did Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe. What they did have, as we still do today, is unachievable beauty standards that women felt the need to change themselves for. That goes for men too, and everyone in between. I wonder if there will be a day where we will no longer feel the need to alter our images to feel like we fit in? Who knows, but thank heavens we have photoshop and Facetune for the moment rather than paying a retoucher to paint and scratch out our apparent ‘flaws’. We can do that on our own.


A woman's arms and waist retouched to appear slimmer from The Book of Photography; Practical, Theoretical and Applied via Archive.org, within the public domain.


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